In several parts of Africa, timber has become associated with violent conflict. The links between timber exploitation and conflict are essentially of two broad types:

  • First, revenues from the timber trade may be channelled towards activities that perpetuate conflict, such as the purchase of weapons. Thus, “conflict timber” is defined as “timber that has been traded at some point in the chain of custody by armed groups, be they rebel factions or regular soldiers, or by a civilian administration involved in armed conflict or its representatives, either to perpetuate conflict or take advantage of conflict situations for personal gain... conflict timber is not necessarily illegal” (Global Witness 2002 cited in Le Billon 2003).
  • Second, the exploitation of timber may itself be a direct cause of conflict (Thomson and Kanaan 2003). This may be because of disputes over, for example, ownership of forest resources, the distribution of benefits, local environmental degradation, or social conflicts caused by immigration of timber workers. In some countries, especially when other sources of income are lacking, there is little attempt to ensure that timber production is sustainable or socially responsible.

Poorly defined or unjust land tenure regimes may exacerbate local struggles over access to timber, which can lead to displacement of forest-dwelling communities. Also, timber exploitation may have secondary effects, such as increased cultivation along new “timber roads” and the clear-felling of forests may exacerbate local tensions. More dramatically perhaps, military intervention in another country (often through proxies) may be motivated by a desire to control timber trade in that country (Global Witness 2002).

Timber is a commodity that can be easily transformed into cash to perpetuate conflict. It is relatively simple to extract and process, requiring only chainsaws and vehicles for transportation, rather than the sophisticated equipment used in oil exploration or deep underground diamond mining. Although it is bulky and has a relatively low weight-to-value ratio (especially compared to diamonds, for example), it is a common commodity and therefore, illegal operators can be difficult to trace among the large numbers of buyers and sellers on the global market.

Armed conflict can have very different effects on timber production, depending on the actors involved, the geographical location of forests, and other factors. In Liberia, civil war allowed powerful actors to take control of the timber industry, grant timber concessions to unscrupulous firms, and buy weapons with the proceeds. Indeed, some timber operators doubled as middlemen in arms deals and in the trade in “blood diamonds” (Global Witness 2002). Usual guidelines for timber harvesting were not followed and those protesting against the trade were beaten, tortured and illegally detained. According to some estimates, the trade in 2000 should have generated a total of US$106 million in taxes. However, only US$6.6 million in tax was actually collected by the government. Sanctions on the timber trade were imposed by the UN in 2003 through Security Council Resolution 1521 and the situation remains problematic, with groups of former rebel troops controlling key timber-producing areas and imposing illegal “taxes” on those transporting timber and other goods.

In the DRC, by contrast, conflict had the effect of reducing the amount of timber being harvested in some areas. The rebel groups, who took over much of the country in the late 1990s, imposed such heavy taxes on timber companies, and the security situation was in general so poor, that many ceased to operate. Some armed groups, having looted the remaining stocks of felled timber, appropriated the equipment belonging to timber companies, making further large-scale timber production difficult (Thomson and Kanaan 2003). In some areas, timber was extracted to the benefit of local armed groups, as well as neighbouring countries involved in the conflict (Keen 2003). At least one neighbouring country that intervened in the conflict was rewarded with logging concessions (Global Witness 2002).

Timber exploitation has negative effects even in countries which are unaffected by violent conflict. As mentioned above, the timber trade, particularly when unregulated, may be associated with negative social and environmental impacts. The opening of new roads in remote forest areas permits the expansion of illegal trade in bushmeat; while logging methods often reduce biodiversity and have a major impact on the livelihoods of poor, resource-dependent communities. At the macrolevel, and especially in countries with few valuable resources other than timber, the trade is associated with corrupt practices, nepotism and tax-dodging. This undermines democracy and reduces the amount of money available for government-led development. Globally, illegal logging on public lands is estimated to result in annual losses of revenues and assets of more than US$10 000 million (World Bank 2003). Losses are estimated at US$5.3 million annually in Cameroon, US$4.2 million in Congo, US$10.1 million in Gabon, and US$37.5 million in Ghana (World Bank 2003).

Regulation of “conflict timber” has been even more problematic, due partly to lack of political will in importing countries (Verbelen 2002). However, there have been efforts at the international level to address the issue more comprehensively. The Africa Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (AFLEG) process, which has been facilitated by the World Bank and other organizations, is designed to fit within the NEPAD umbrella. It aims to galvanize international and multi-stakeholder commitment at high political levels to strengthen capacity for forest law enforcement in Africa, especially in regard to illegal logging and associated trade. At a Pre-Ministerial Meeting in 2002, government representatives from across Africa recognized that armed conflicts have had disastrous impacts on many forests in Africa, and that illegal logging has funded conflicts which have resulted in the destruction of both traditional and modern forest management institutions, rendering law enforcement impossible. The AFLEG Ministerial Conference convened in Yaoundé, Cameroon from 13 to 16 October 2003, brought together ministers from Africa, Europe and North America to consider how partnerships between producers and consumers, donors, civil society and the private sector could address illegal forest exploitation and associated trade in Africa.